Roanoke, Va., is full of unexpected delights

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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“Hey, y’all, we’ll move over. Come sit on down,” the scruffy bearded man called over to us.

Entering the minuscule Texas Tavern eatery in Roanoke ( www.texas.tavern-inc.com), we had heard it was small but didn’t realize it was THIS small. A tiny hallway of a cafe, the Tavern’s loyal clientele flocks to it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, despite having to stand outside and wait for one of the 10 bar stools.

After all, those $1.70 bowls of chili and $1.30 burgers and dogs just fill the spot, as they have for Roanoke residents and others since the 1930s. On this day, the stools were occupied by an extroverted South African, two burly bikers from Miami, our bearded new friend and his buddy, the three of us, and a spiffily dressed businessman. All races, all professions, all income levels rest their feet on the now flattened old foot rail.

The Tavern even sports an ancient cigarette vending machine — when was the last time you saw one of those relics?

Just as the Texas Tavern surprised me, I was delightfully pleased by Roanoke and its surrounding areas during a recent visit.

It’s a hodgepodge, with unexpected discoveries at every turn. The “Star City,” as it is affectionately known, gets its nickname from the enormous 100-foot-high man-made star looming over it from Mill Mountain, which overlooks 10 miles of trails and offers sweeping vistas of the lush valley below.

Not to be confused with North Carolina’s “lost colony of Roanoke,” (the site of a 16th-century English settlement whose residents disappeared mysteriously), this Roanoke is very much alive.

Virginia’s Roanoke Valley encompasses a lovely Grandma Moses-like patchwork of the city itself and the surrounding villages of Bedford, Catawba, Fincastle, Salem, Troutville, and others along the densely wooded Blue Ridge Parkway region. (By the way, the word Roanoke comes from an American Indian term meaning “shell beads.”)

It is the largest metropolitan center (some 300,000-plus population) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering a heady mix of outdoor beauty and recreation, culture, folk heritage, history and Southern hospitality. Ranging from the awe-inspiring top of McAfee Knob, to an eclectic, yet very professional, performance of Opera Roanoke, to a moving film about a man with a passion for steam locomotives, there are experiences you can’t have elsewhere.

Center in the Square, in the heart of downtown Roanoke, is a rarity — housing three museums, along with a state-of-the-art theater and butterfly pavilion all in the same space. Recently reopened after an expansive renovation, the center is home to the Science Museum of Western Virginia, with hands-on and interactive exhibits; the History Museum of Western Virginia, with permanent and traveling exhibits about the Roanoke area; and The Harrison Museum of African American Culture — worthy and very well-presented. The Mill Mountain Theatre is a regional professional venue, presenting plays and musicals year-round.

Downtown Roanoke is resplendent in its renovation — just 20 years ago, almost no one lived in the then-dilapidated area. Urban renewal kicked in, and today, there are 70 bustling restaurants, a multitude of shops, crowded sidewalks, and restored lofts and condos, filled with residents who enjoy easy pedestrian access to the famous Farmers Market.

Visitors don’t miss Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles cafe for its down-home soul food (aah, that fried chicken!) — as the sign outside tells you, “Run tell dat!”

A special shop is Appalachia Press ( http://appalachiapress.com/), with an antique letterpress that the owner combines with modern design techniques to make unique stationery and artwork. The store is supposedly open to the public only on Saturdays (or by appointment), but I walked right in on a Wednesday without a problem.

The Roanoke Valley was built on railroads, specifically the Norfolk & Southern, with its fiery steam locomotives, carrying coal and cargo, that inspired the passion of railroad photographer O. Winston Link. I hadn’t heard of Link, and didn’t think I’d be too interested in him, until I saw the captivating and moving documentary of his somewhat tragic life at the O. Winston Link Museum ( www.linkmuseum.org).

After the film, I was mesmerized by the museum’s collection of his photographs of this era — gone forever but captured beautifully by Link for posterity. For those who want to know more about trains, and other types of vehicles, the vast Virginia Museum of Transportation is located in Roanoke’s historic Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station.

The collection includes some 2,500 objects, more than 50 rail cars and the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, including two of the engines depicted so lovingly in the Link documentary. Oh, and there is an incredible life-sized Styrofoam replica of the engine in the beloved book and movie The Polar Express.

Making the museum truly captivating is its volunteer staff, composed of train buffs and former railroaders. I was touched by docent Charles Hardy, who recalled seeing his first steam locomotive at just 8 years old and being frightened by it. Later, as a Norfolk & Southern railroad employee for many years, Hardy spoke about coming to love and respect the engines.

“You actually feel their heartbeat,” he mused, standing next to one of the long-dormant, majestic locomotives in the museum yard. “Here, put your hand on the side and wait. They’ve got souls. Oh, yes, they’ve got souls.” Indeed, his emotion moved me to put my hand on it — and imagine.

I was fascinated by the section devoted to the oral and pictorial history of black railroad employees who were held back in lower positions no matter how well and hard they worked. Strolling afterward on the so-called Railwalk, a 1/3-mile walkway along the still-operating tracks, I was struck by the contrast of what once was the romantic, thunderous rolling of U.S.-made steam locomotives, and today’s dismal sight of endless multicolored cargo ship containers marked with Chinese names such as Yang Ming Kline and Hanjin Hapag Lloyd.

How would Link have felt?

A quick stroll away, the acclaimed Taubman Museum of Art ( www.taubmanmuseum.org), formerly the Art Museum of Western Virginia, is housed in an impressive architectural gem, and showcases American, modern, contemporary, design, decorative, folk and regional arts. With more than 2,000 pieces in its permanent collection, it’s a place you’ll want to visit for several hours.

Because it’s downtown, visitors easily can skip out for lunch and return, or enjoy the pleasant and well-priced museum cafe. Special bonus — the museum, open Tuesday through Saturday, is free to the public. A special, hauntingly expressive exhibit, open until Jan. 18, 2014, is “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement,” presenting the works of nine photographers who in the 1960s lived and photographed from within the Southern Freedom Movement.

Just a block or so from the Taubman and downtown, the stately, Tudor revival-style Roanoke Hotel (built in 1882) reigns still. The “Grand Old Lady,” exquisitely restored in the mid ’90s by the new owner, Virginia Tech, is filled with historical photos, frescoes, memorabilia and furnishings. It is the site for the town’s debutante balls, power brunches, and the Virginia Tech football team the night before each home game.

Originally constructed to handle the railroad industry businessmen and travelers, the Hotel Roanoke is a “must see” — and most will stop to savor the signature Peanut Soup (sort of a warm, savory peanut buttery concoction) with adjoining buttery spoon bread in a cast-iron skillet — one of the best comfort food duos I’ve ever had.

Beyond downtown, the valley beckons, full of Appalachian and Blue Ridge wilderness and pastoral countryside, distinctive villages and recreational offerings. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a geomorphic section of the larger Appalachian Mountain range, dividing near the Roanoke River gap. The Blue Ridge Mountains contain the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile-long scenic highway connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Beauty in Botetourt County

Botetourt County, resplendent in rolling hills with miles of hiking and biking trails, wide rivers and tumbling streams, plus never-ending country vistas just begging to be painted, features such towns as Fincastle, considered a “museum” of American architecture of the late 1770s through modern times.

Fincastle also is home to the easy tree-lined hike to Roaring Run Falls, a split waterfall, and a historic 19th-century iron furnace used in the Civil War. A challenging but rewarding 8-mile hike round trip to McAfee Knob, a trademark hike of the Appalachian Trail, features an overhang of rock and a 270-degree panoramic view of the Roanoke Valley below. You’ll meet hikers from all over the world and join them in celebrating reaching the summit.

If you’re not up to such a journey, be sure to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting little towns like Floyd, known as part of Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, called The Crooked Road. Or visit Chateau Morrisette, one of the state’s largest wineries, producing 15 varietals. The small burg of Troutville is proud to have Pomegranate ( www.pomegranateva.com). This sophisticated bistro seems rather incongruous outside of a large city, as it is serving up exceptional fare (even written up in The Wall Street Journal), with perhaps the best vinaigrette I’ve had outside of France. Who knew? Troutville, Va.?

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford commemorates the country’s most severe per-capita losses on the fateful day. It is believed that between 19 and 23 young men from the small town died on that day in 1944. The memorial is impressive, with a stylized English Garden, invasion tableau and Victory Plaza, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My last day in the valley ended as it should — with a feast beyond compare, at the famed Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba, (540-384-7252). Built in 1907, set on 150 of the original 600 acres of a pretty farm, replete with meandering Angus cattle and tidy white barn, it’s a place where folks wait for up to three hours to dine country-style (from big bowls passed down the table) on a $15 meal of succulent fried chicken, roast beef and country ham, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits and warm cobbler.

Best of all, you might get a server who will call you “Honey” when she brings your chunky apple butter to you. It is the winner of the “Best Southern Food in Seven States” Readers’ Vote in Blue Ridge Magazine’s 2013 edition, and dining at the Homeplace is also listed at No. 5 on nearby Virginia Tech’s Bucket List of 72 Things to Do before graduation.

Indeed, there were many Virginia Tech students sitting on the stairs the night we were there, enjoying the bluegrass musicians playing to the hungry folks on the wait list, while others napped in the wicker rockers on the wrap-around front porch.

You’ll find plenty of places in the Roanoke Valley touting “Southern-style biscuits” and “peach cobbler,” but the Homeplace is the real thing — no gimmicks here, and blissfully, no gift shop.

Harold C. Wingate, the white-haired gentleman owner, settles your bill and is proud he’s only open for business for several hours of the day..

This is Virginia, after all — if you want a fast pace and lots of action, go elsewhere. If you want to relax and feast your senses on Blue Ridge Mountain sights, sounds, tastes and smells, head on over to the Roanoke Valley.

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